Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Many of us pray on a regular basis.  But why?  Here's the definition of prayer on Wikipedia (my best friend):  Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.  I like that definition.  We pray to establish contact with something greater than ourselves, perhaps because it makes us feel greater than we are.  The act of worship, therefore, is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.  But is that the reason why we pray?  I don't think so. Wendy Cadge, a sociologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, found that ninety percent of Americans claim to pray regularly (more than half claim daily).  In her 2008 study she discovered that their prayers fell into one of three categories -- about 28 percent of prayers were requests of God, 28 percent were prayers to both thank and petition God, while another 22 percent of the prayers just thanked God.  Notice, there's no mention of communicating with or connecting to a Higher Power.  It's all about either give me or thankYou.  When I asked a group of elementary school children why their parents go to synagogue most said to see friends or fulfill social obligations.  Granted that's a slightly different question, but still we don't see people praying for the purpose which seems to define prayer, namely making contact with the Infinite.  Prayer services turned out to be not much different than a visit to the mall.  It's either to see friends or get something that you need.

            I think that the average person's view of prayer is formed by the stories about praying we see in the Bible.  The most famous examples of prayer, like Moshe begging to enter Israel before he dies (Deuteronomy 3:23), or when his sister is sick (Numbers 12:13), Chana when she was barren (I Samuel 1:11), or Jonah in the whale (Chapter 2) are people asking for specifics things and getting them.  One of the most famous examples is right in our Torah reading:  Yitzchak prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him, and Rivka his wife conceived (Genesis 25:21).  To many of us prayer is like a successful turn in the game Go Fish with the happy player proclaiming 'Got what I wanted!'       

               This raises a tremendous problem.  How can humans expect that they can change God's will?  The famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant calls this preposterous and presumptuous.  However, many Jewish sources state that God wants us to pray for these things and actually Rivka was barren so that she and Yitzchak would pray for her to have children (Talmud Yevamot 64a).  It's some sort of test, and it is indeed part of God's plan.  We don't really alter the Divine Game Plan; it's all factored in.  That explains why so many of the prayers written by our Sages contain many requests.  Many authorities from Reb Yosef Albo through Rav Kook understood this phenomenon in a slightly different way.  Don't think that we have moved God, instead think of us spiritually relocating through our prayer experience from one position to a higher one, and now we are situated in a way to receive God's bounty.  God's not moved by our prayers: we are. 

            There's another way of looking at the prayer of Yitzchak in our parsha.  The Talmud (again Yevamot 64a) asks why the Torah uses the word va'ye'etar to describe Yitzchak's prayer?  The word derives from the term for a farm implement, something like a rake.  The answer is that just like a rake moves the grain from one place to another, so, too, our prayers rearrange God's traits in such a way that we now are receiving God's compassion and concern rather than Divine justice.  We haven't really impacted the Cosmos very much.  We've just reshuffle the deck into a more advantageous arrangement. 

Although those positions about receiving specific items because of our prayers are acceptable Jewish approaches to prayer, they still bother me.  Even though part of me identifies with those who come to pray because of a major emergency in their life, still I shudder at the thought of prayer resembling a trip to Walmart.  So, why are so many of our prayers (both historical and in our prayer book) about requests?  Reb Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm (1824-1898) wrote:  The essence of prayer is ethical growth (musar).  God does not require a reminder of our needs.  If one merits, God provides.  The fundamental nature of prayer is to remind ourselves that God is the Creator and Source of all bounty (Chachma U'musar, chapter 110).  I would add the educational element.  The list of requests that the Sages wrote for us is also a reminder of what are the essentials of life, which we should be concerned with.  Because we often forget priorities.

Perhaps we can look at prayer from another perspective as well.  Sometimes when we talk to a really good friend or soul mate, we don't want them to provide any answers, advice or solutions.  We just want them to listen.  And if this is happening on the phone, they don't have to say anything, just periodically clear their throat or mumble their assent.  We just want to know that someone who cares and loves us is listening.  It's amazing how much better we feel when we've expressed our thoughts, unburdened our souls in an empathetic environment.

I just ordered a new decorative piece for the top of my talit.  It's not silver or the skyline of Jerusalem.  It just states in midnight blue on sky blue:  Know before Whom you stand.  That's all we want or need.  When we plead:  Listen to our voices (Shema Koleknu); we're proclaiming that we just want to know that You're on the other end of the line.  So, when we ask:  Do prayers work?  The answer is yes, but they work in ways we didn't expect.          



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